I hate these word crimes too, Al

In three minutes and forty-five seconds of pure genius, Weird Al Yankovic has managed to collect nearly all of my pet peeves as an editor and used the sharpest blade known to man (sarcasm) to belittle any and all parties guilty of bad grammar.

Thank you, Al. I couldn’t have said it (and certainly couldn’t have sung it) better myself. Instead of correcting offenders in the future, I’ll just sit them down and play your video. They will be educated as well as entertained. And I’ll save an awful lot of time.

This is your magnum opus.

Word Crimes

Music video by “Weird Al” Yankovic performing Word Crimes. (C) 2014 RCA Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment

The trouble with sleep

Not quite a poem #3

Absent the worry that wrestles a resting mind, sleep dances like an acrobat on a practiced path. No need for a safety net of dreams. He already knows where he will land – clairvoyance for a clear voyage to the place that leaves no questions unanswered and no wound unhealed. Tranquility breeds itself; still air makes no ripples on the water’s surface. Likewise, fear begets fear until all is swallowed in the void. There are those who will insist the sisters must be in balance, lest one destroy the other. We should be so lucky. We lie with whom we are assigned.

 

Storytelling insight hatched from Eagle Cam

Storytelling insight hatched from Eagle Cam

Learning to look beyond our line of sight

Obsessed isn’t the right word, but my family has become, let’s say, enamored with the Eagle Cam. You probably know the one. Perched high in an aerie above Decorah, Iowa, a family of bald eagles, including three recently hatched eaglets, are proceeding with their daily lives, blissfully unaware they are the stars of a new reality show. And it’s a hit.


Live streaming video by Ustream

I was introduced to the Eagle Cam by my daughter, whose class has been keeping tabs on this patriotic family of predators, but the live stream is now marching across social media faster than Grumpy Cat.

It’s not uncommon now for the backdrop of our dinner conversation or evening homework rituals to include silent, beak-to-beak feeding of squirrel viscera or the devastatingly adorable snuggling of cotton-clad eagle babies keeping warm in their gusty perch.

It’s captivating because it is an uncommon sight. Plus, the pairing of the hunters’ implacability with their gentle parenting creates a lovely paradox, albeit perfectly ordinary in nature. It’s difficult to stop watching because you don’t want to miss what comes next, and that is where this conversation dovetails (see what I did there?) with a discussion about writing.

Great storytelling makes us long to know what comes next. I wrote briefly about this regarding the mystery that can be created through perspectiveThe eagles are interesting because they are unpredictable, and we don’t know how their story ends. It is still being written.

Even more, we often are drawn as readers to what is unique. As writers, it’s important to challenge ourselves to discover the stories that lie beyond our line of sight. Sometimes, that’s literal, such as a biopic about raptors living in the trees above our heads.

It can also be figurative. The bullied child. The homeless woman. The unseen act of kindness. The secret identity of a true hero.

I advocate for unlikely storytelling because I view writing and reading as a way to explore the unknown in the world around us as well as within our innermost thoughts. There may be no better method for learning than a story – and that goes for writing as well as reading.

I have learned a few practical things about eagles by watching them on video. They build strong nests. They are nurturing. They are powerful. They work as a team.

I have also learned that by veering from the norm and looking in unexpected directions, I might find a compelling story. I have the Decorah eagles to thank for that.

And now that I’ve become invested in their lives, I hope their story ends well.

saras leaf

Sara’s leaf

Poetry by Jeremy Podolski

I saw you fall
In the usual way

Autumn offering. Ochre whisper.
Tacit descent,
Unremarkable but for its solitude
Singular spirit
Waltzing on unseen breezes
Plummet and pirouette
Reflecting in the dance
Your feather touch
Ribbon kiss
Eyelids like petals from a rose
And before alighting on the grass,
The slightest draft, like baby’s breath
Lifted you above my heart
Suspended in the misty air
Just long enough
For me to know
It was you.

For my dear friends, Kelly and Steve. May you always receive signs.

Freshly Pressed: two days later

Reflections on the art of storytelling and the power of community

Despite my best efforts to act like I’ve been there before, the truth is, I haven’t, so my brain is still processing the tremendous, uplifting response I’ve gotten after being Freshly Pressed for “The essay my mother wrote.”

For my family, friends and followers who haven’t seen the Freshly Pressed feature before, it is a daily portfolio of blog posts, handpicked by the WordPress editorial team to showcase great writing, interesting topics and enlightening discussion. There are half-a-million blogs in the WordPress community and millions of posts, so to be among the 5-10 posts picked on a given day is to be in rare company.

It’s kind of like having your story on the front page of a global newspaper or projected on the Jumbotron in Times Square. I am thrilled to be chosen, but it is exponentially meaningful that it was for this particular story.

I am especially grateful for the readers and bloggers who felt inspired (and continue) to share their own stories about their moms or their children or coping with loss or change. We are part of a global community, and these stories prove that we have more in common than we have differences. I will be buoyed for weeks by the positive dialogue and the heartening thoughts you’ve offered about my mom and your loved ones.

To my fellow writers who have read and commented on this post, thank you. I’m looking forward to visiting your blogs, and I will get to them all. It just might take a little while. The list is growing. The opportunity to connect with so many creative people has been an unexpected gift from this experience.

I write in the hopes of affecting others through compelling storytelling. But storytelling is a two-way street. Thanks for joining me on that road.

The essay my mother wrote

Five years after her death, a 20-year old letter tells powerful story of a mother’s love

I was rummaging this week in my Windows documents folder – my generation’s version of a cobwebbed attic – looking for something I no longer recall, when I saw a folder simply labeled “Mom.”the essay my mother wrote mother and sonIt’s been more than five years since my mom died of ovarian cancer at much too young an age. Five years: a blink and an eternity all at once. I try desperately to remember the sound and cadence of her voice. I trip over triggered memories of time-bleached events, hoping to add new detail to my imperfect archive of childhood. Occasionally, I pick up the phone to call her, only realizing my folly when I struggle to remember her number.

Unexpectedly finding something that is about her, belonged to her or pictures her is like discovering treasure buried beneath a sun-drenched palm.

Inside this particular folder was a single document, a pdf named “College Bound.” My first thought was that it was simply a wayward file, misplaced in a folder I once meant to fill with something meaningful. Still, the title wasn’t familiar, so I double-clicked, not knowing it would send me headlong into the past.

Greeting me at the top of a scanned, type-written letter was a date: September 22, 1994. Twenty years ago. The year I began college. So, this was going to be about me. My eyes jumped to the bottom of the first page, where I saw my mom’s name and signature, nudging from my subconscious the faintest memory of my dad sending me something in those hazy months following mom’s death, something she had written that I’d probably like to have, something I likely had been too sad or stunned to open at the time.

I learned in this moment that she had written an essay about her experience sending her only son off to college. Staring back from the screen were four pages, like the chambers of her outpouring heart, gifting me new insight into a woman I knew and loved for more than 30 years – one last conversation, however one-sided, that I never thought I’d have.

It’s not even the words she wrote that struck me so deeply as the clarity with which I could hear her voice in them. This was no forgery, no parlor trick. This was my mother, as intelligent, as empathetic and as sentimental as she was in life.

And that could have been enough.

But this essay was more than just a diary entry. It was a submission.

The letter introducing the essay was addressed to the Articles Editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine, New York, New York. She had mailed the essay, hoping for publication. She wanted other moms dealing with the emotional turbulence of having a child grow up and move out to not feel so alone. Selfless to the last.

the essay my mother wrote letter

Now, despite the fact that I operate a public blog, and write about many things, including myself, I’m still a fairly private person. And although I’m pretty sure I’ve matured beyond the point of being embarrassed about anything my mother would say about my teenage self, I can’t help but feel a little self-conscious as I release these words into the world. My mom, however, wanted to share her perspective with others. That was her wish, and so it is mine.

Good Housekeeping may not have published your essay, Mom. But I will.

Thank you for the surprise… and for everything else before.

COLLEGE BOUND

BY BARBARA PODOLSKI

To the readers:

Before I begin, you must take note that the opinions and perceptions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the young man I write about. They are exclusively mine. After all, how many children view things the same way as their parents? So in order not to humiliate or embarrass anyone, I repeat, this is my story and my feelings alone.

* * * * * * * *

I could say it all began when he stepped on that school bus the first day of kindergarten and never looked back, but that would bring back too many painful memories and I want to deal with the present. I wasn’t prepared then, and I certainly hadn’t been prepared for what took place a few weeks ago. I sent my only child off to college. I’m sure a lot of parents look forward to the day when they once again have the house to themselves, food left in the refrigerator, and a telephone call that is actually for them. For me though, the feelings were different.

Jeremy wasn’t a miracle baby in any medical sense of the word, but he was my miracle. Our first son had been born prematurely in 1972 and died two days after his birth. Jeremy’s birth, on his father’s birthday, was a sign that this would be one special adventure. The years flew by too quickly as most childhoods do, but I loved every minute I spent with him. Being an only child can have certain drawbacks as I’m sure Jeremy would attest, but the one big advantage is the bond that is formed between mother and son. We always had a special relationship and could talk to each other even during those dreaded early teenage years. He was never a momma’s boy, but strong, independent, and his own person. I was always there for him and he knew that. We were friends. (For you fathers that are reading this, I apologize for leaving you out. You’re a part of the big picture, but you’ll have to write your own story if you want the readers to see things from your point of view).

The thought of having a child in college seemed so far into the future, that when senior year in high school rolled around, I finally had to face reality that it was closing in. Months and months of college applications to fill out, essays to write, scholarship forms, interviews and of course that infamous, confusing, and downright frightening FAFSA were all staring us in the face. Somehow it was all completed on time and my desk now held a two foot high stack of paperwork that had accumulated. There was no turning back now.

With his college selected, his registration done, and his next four years planned out for him, Jeremy felt his life was pretty much in order. I on the other hand knew that beyond the poverty level his father and I would be forced to live in, I would have an empty house and some very lonely days ahead. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy spending time with my husband. But after 18 years of having a child in the house, the realization that it will be “just the two of you now”, was a pretty scary thought.

The months that followed had come and gone before I knew it, but I tried to make the most of them. If I learned one thing when raising an only child, it was to take advantage of being there for him every opportunity you can get. Jeremy was involved heavily in many high school activities and was an avid basketball and baseball player. Sitting at his final games and realizing that this was the end of all that, was as heartbreaking for me as it was for him. I would not only miss watching him perform, but I would miss the good friends that I had made and the social atmosphere that surrounded each event. It’s easy to say we’ll keep in touch but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Leaving high school was not only a step into the future for my son, but a step into a very different kind of life for me.

Graduation came too quickly and the final summer of still being “just a kid” was over only too soon. Jeremy’s summer job was necessary to help save for college expenses but it left little time for keeping all those promises that he and his friends made to each other. As the days closed in I reflected a lot on the past eighteen years and how lucky I was that I had been blessed with the joy of motherhood. I was so proud of all his accomplishments and the young man he had become. In spite of my sadness that he would soon be leaving, I was filled with eager anticipation of the wonderful experiences and opportunities that were in his future.

And then – the awaited day arrived. No one had gotten much sleep the night before, and we all got up at the crack of dawn to make the journey I had dreaded all these months. We had to be at the college at 8:00 A.M. to start the moving in process. An ordeal that remains in my mind as a blur. We had borrowed a truck for the move, and it was packed with everything Jeremy needed and wanted to make his new room feel as familiar and as comfortable as his old one had been. As we pulled out of the driveway and started on our way, he again never looked back.

We arrived at the college as scheduled, unloaded Jeremy’s belongings on the lawn, and he and I went inside to begin the ordeal I mentioned earlier. If you’re not a person with much patience, do not attempt to try this. As in our case, I wisely left my husband to wait outside. The line was long and consisted of a maze of people winding around the room and down the hallway into another room. Inside that room were numerous tables each person had to stop at to receive keys, identification cards, class schedules and armfuls of more information that was supposed to make your first day simpler. I say, who are they trying to kid! It was overwhelming to say the least, and a lot of people looked confused and were much less prepared than we were. After more than an hour we emerged back into the daylight.

With that task behind us, we loaded our arms with boxes and climbed the four flights of stairs to Jeremy’s dorm room. I would now get my first glimpse at where he would be starting his new life. I stood in the doorway in a numb-like state and looked around. This wasn’t at all how I pictured it. My god it’s so tiny. How can two people possibly live in here? I was heartsick and couldn’t imagine being confined in this tiny space day after day. There was barely room to walk and where would all the boxes go that contained the necessities of life? I took a deep breath and waited patiently while father and son made numerous trips up and down the stairs to bring in all Jeremy’s belongings. I could visualize now that his things would probably all fit, but there certainly would be no room for a roommate. This was definitely a place for one occupant. They must have made a mistake!

Jeremy seemed troubled and his lack of sleep was catching up with him. He didn’t seem enthused about unpacking and deep down I thought he would prefer to load the boxes back up and go home. That’s certainly how I felt. Trying to be optimistic wasn’t easy especially when the R.A. stopped in and mentioned that last year this floor was the worst one in the residence hall. Just what a parent needs to hear.

We eventually got everything unpacked and organized as well as could be expected. I knew once Jeremy’s roommate arrived, it would all be changed. We decided to hit the bookstore next which made the first ordeal at the beginning of the day seem like a piece of cake next to this. Talk about a tiny room! We left my husband at the far end of the room so he could breath and for an hour I could almost spot the top of his head over the crowd. There were so many confused parents and students and the shock at the cost of the books was on all their faces. Our enthusiasm was next to nothing but we had to do it. Finally finding what he needed and waiting in line another forty-five minutes was so exhausting, that when they totaled our bill and said it was over $300, I almost didn’t care at that point. I just wanted out of there.

We attended the other events that were scheduled throughout the day and I knew our time left there was growing shorter. We would soon be expected to leave as the students had various meetings and activities to partake in. We went back to his room and tried to talk, but what can you say when your heart is breaking? He seemed so young all of a sudden and I didn’t want to leave him. I knew he was apprehensive but he wouldn’t show any emotion. The time had come to say good-bye and my husband practically had to drag me to my feet. Jeremy walked us to the parking lot and I didn’t want to let go. I hadn’t felt this way since he was two years old and had to go into the hospital for minor surgery. I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I had to leave him at the O.R. door and they wheeled him away. I was having those same feelings now. I knew he needed me. How could he figure out all this on his own? I hugged him tightly and watched him walk away. I waited, but he didn’t look back. I wasn’t prepared for this and could hardly bear it. This wasn’t how I was supposed to feel, was it? Shouldn’t I be happy? After all, wasn’t this what we planned for and dreamed about? I just stood there and cried while my husband held me. I never felt so utterly miserable in my life.

Those were my feelings on that day. Feelings that were filled with very strong emotions. Of course I can look back now and feel a bit foolish at all my anxieties, but I won’t apologize for the love I felt. A mother’s love.

College life agrees with Jeremy and he’s as happy and content as I hoped he would be. He’s made his adjustments as well as I’ve made mine. I still stand in the doorway of his empty room and ask myself where all the years have gone. I can still picture a beautiful, towheaded little boy so young and curious and just learning about life. I smile as the tears roll down my cheeks.

Letting go wasn’t easy. It was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. But as I took that painful step forward and into the future, I knew that someday, when the time was right, he would finally turn around and “look back”.

perspective frames what a reader sees feature

Perspective frames what a reader sees

Authors use perspective to build mystery

I don’t specifically blog about photography, but I was thinking this week about perspective and how it utterly influences the stories we tell.

Whether or not your story features a detective, most fiction – and even some nonfiction – writing is driven by mystery. Readers are motivated to continue reading by the desire to know what happens next and how the pieces of the tale fit together. They want to see what is hidden from their view, the secrets the writer has kept until the moment of revelation.

The perspective from which the author tells the story is significantly responsible for determining what information is revealed and what information is concealed. A narrator’s biased viewpoint, an era with particular cultural mores, a setting with a limited worldview – these all are potential contributors to the perspective we are given as readers. We can’t change the author’s perspective; we can only interpret what we “see” through that lens.

Sometimes the view is clear. Other times, the mystery remains intact until the reader receives enough information to broaden the perspective and see the context for the details.

Photography is remarkable in the way it illustrates the mystery of perspective while often giving us enough information to solve that mystery. Unlike in literature, that epiphany can happen in an instant.

These two images portray mystery through the use of perspective:

perspective frames what a reader sees 1

I took this photo looking upward at the ceiling of Parasol Down at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. The varying heights and the geometric elements add to the mystery of this image. For me, it also conjures an imagined memory, an invented scene that could have been found in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

perspective frames what a reader sees 2

This photo was taken at a ski and snow tubing park. Because the scale of the subject isn’t immediately identifiable, and the textures in each element are distinct and compartmentalized, the perspective of the image delays comprehension of the objects. Yet, within a few moment’s time, it’s possible, without further information, to deduce the scene.

The Daily Post discussed the use of perspective in photos this week.

I think the parallels to writing are constructive.

If you could read faster, would you

If you could read faster, would you?

Literature lessons from a bowl of chili

I approach reading books much like cooking a batch of homemade chili. Chili tastes best when you allow the flavors to build and gain complexity. Sure, you can churn and burn, but you’ll miss out on the meal’s potential, the character that develops only with time and care.

There will always be moments when you’re forced to settle for anything edible, with disregard for everything but convenience. I get that. Just, in those moments, don’t reach for chili.

I feel the same way about books, which is why I am a purposely slow reader. A methodical reader. A reader who will re-read the same paragraph three times if I think it contains cleverly concealed insight that needs careful examination before a deeper understanding will emerge from the text.

Most of my day-to-day life is spent in overdrive. Books represent a voluntary opportunity to change the pace and disappear into another world. I think that’s impossible to do if that world is blowing by at 600 words per minute.

Perhaps, therefore, my appreciation for detailed reading (or my disdain for superficial reading), led me to click on this headline today:

This insane new app will allow you to read novels in under 90 minutes

When I buy a book for my Kindle, I get a pretty good return on my investment, in terms of entertainment hours. If I borrow a book from the library, I’m usually good for multiple renewals before I return it. This new app, named Spritz, apparently seeks to relieve me of both of those qualities.

The technology is intriguing. You choose the pace, and the program displays the content one word at a time. The slower settings are like reading an electronic billboard. The fastest setting is like a literary strobe light. The rapid-fire nature is enough to leave you practically breathless after 30 seconds. I can’t fathom enjoying a novel read this way over the course of 90 minutes, nor am I sure there’s enough Advil to get me through the exercise. I am willing to give it a try in the future for the sake of edu-tainment, though I’ll probably have to shoot for a Dan Brown title rather than Dostoyevsky.

Spritz claims that when you are reading, only 20 percent of your time is spent processing content while the other 80 percent is occupied by moving your eyes from word to word and line to line. The app’s technology attempts to circumvent this by highlighting the “optimal recognition point” within each word to expedite your processing time. The Spritz website explains the approach more robustly.

Whether or not it works or works well, Spritz introduces a new offspring of the ancient debate: “Sure you CAN do it; but SHOULD you?”

That will likely boil down to personal preference. If you enjoy reading for pleasure, this technology may hold little interest for you. If you need a utilitarian solution for the rapid consumption of material, you may have a winner. Maybe Spritz will find a niche in helping people read the fine print of their 50-page mortgage application or the user manual for their new dishwasher.

More likely, Spritz will become useful for news consumption. I can see value in reading an entire newspaper in 10 minutes. I’ll also bet this technology will become the darling of college students worldwide. Countless undergrads hoping to tear through their required reading in record time will probably set the market. I could have used it for introduction to macroeconomics. Just don’t touch my Shakespeare.

Time will tell if this invention is merely a novelty or indeed a practical tool. I predict it will have staying power, at least in some segments. There are plenty of people who read only out of necessity.

When it comes to literature, however, I’d prefer this gadget stay out of my kitchen. I’ll take a slow simmer over fast food any day.